Search Engines

By Megan | June 26, 2009

In order to understand the use of the internet to promote causes and ideas, it is vital to understand Search Engines and how they operate.

What is a Search Engine?

A search engine is basically a computer program which helps people find information on the internet.  If you go to, enter the word “dog collars” in the blank, and hit “enter,” you will get a long list of links to websites.  The program that provided that list for you is the search engine which belongs to Google Inc.

Strictly and technically speaking, Google itself is not a search engine, but a company which owns a search engine (among other things).  However, in day-to-day use, people use the term “search engine” to refer to the companies which run search engines, and the websites where visitors can find search engines.  Therefore, one would say “Google is my favorite search engine” as opposed to saying “my favorite search engine is the one run by Google.”  It’s much simpler to refer to it this way.

The Purpose of a Search Engine

When you go to a website like Google and type a word or phrase into the search engine, you probably are hoping to find results which are:

  • Relevant
  • Good Quality
  • Helpful
  • Informative
  • Useful
  • Varied

Imagine if you went to a search engine and typed in “dog collars,” but then got results such as the following:

  • Links to websites about coffee cups
  • Pages written in unclear English with bad grammar, which are difficult to read, and uninformative.
  • Links to same website appearing over and over in the top 10 positions, instead of links to a variety of different websites with information on dog collars
  • Or, even worse yet, pages of incoherent gibberish which simply have the word “dog collars” repeated over and over in their text.

You would probably feel that search engine was not very useful, and you wouldn’t use that search engine again. You would look for a better one.

The people who run search engines, and who write the programs that operate them, are aware of this fact. They want their search engines to provide results which are as useful, relevant, and high-quality as possible. This will make people want to use those search engines more.  The more people use their search engines, the more money they make (from advertisers).  And its also a point of pride to give a good service.

On the other side of the coin, there are people who work against the search engines.

How and why would they do that? Well, usually these are people who own websites. They want their websites to rank well in the search engines, but they don’t want to work too hard to get them there. So they try to short-cut the system, and cheat their way to the top.

It’s okay to practice SEO (Search Engine Optimization) in order to try to get to the top. But proper SEO includes building high-quality and useful websites which will provide useful and relevant information to the people who are searching for information online. When webmasters try to trick the search engines into giving them higher rankings, or more traffic than they deserve, this is called “black hat SEO.”

In an effort to combat black-hat SEO and to maintain the integrity of their search results, search engines are continually modifying and improving their algorithms.  (An algorithm is basically a set of instructions given to a computer, which tells a computer what to do an how to do it.  Search engine algorithms tell computers how to decide which search results to offer up, when an internet user enters a search query.)

Every time someone comes up with a new trick about how to get around the algorithms, the search engine companies come out with a new algorithm in response – and so it goes.

For the most part, search engines keep their algorithms a secret, in order to make it harder for people to try to shortcut them.

Therefore, search engine optimization is an interesting field.  It is an area of constant change, some mystery, occasional or not-so-occasional guess-work, and lots of room for opinion.

At the same time, there are many key basic facts that you can learn and apply, successfully and ethically, in order to get more relevant traffic to a website or websites. 

Most importantly, keep in mind what the purpose of a search engine is – so that you can work with it, and not against it.

Good website content and good SEO go hand-in-hand. Together, they are a highly powerful combination.  One without the other is not.

What does this have to do with your message or your cause? If you want to help support and promote a cause, you may or may not own a website about that cause. But most likely, someone else does.

Did you know that you yourself have an incredible amount of power to help improve the SEO of websites which do not belong to you?  And that you can do this ethically, honestly, and very easily?

Simply by improving the SEO of websites which promote your cause or message, you are helping to get more visitors to those websites – which means more traffic, more support, and more members for those organizations.

And possibly most importantly, it means that more people will view, read, or hear the message you want them to get, and then spread it even further.

In future posts I will discuss what you can do to help improve the SEO of websites that don’t belong to you.